By BRIAN HUNSICKER
One never umpired before his biggest test. One got his start from the humblest of beginnings. One was moved by the death of a golfing legend.
The umpires who come through Woodbridge, working the Carolina League circuit for the summer, are just as skilled as the players they share the field with. Like the players, those that can’t make the cut are weeded out long before they get to this level.
In fact, the umpires’ course can be more tenuous. Current St. Louis pitcher Dan Haren was drafted in 2001 and zoomed through the Cardinals’ minor-league system — including a stop with the Cannons — before getting to the majors in late June.
Jason Klein and Fran Burke, recently in Woodbridge for a Cannons series, are both in their fourth years of professional umpiring. Most players that need four years to get to high Class-A are longer than longshots to get to the majors.
But that’s all part of being a minor-league umpire. For many, that call to the majors may never come, just like the players. Even if it does, it takes some time to get there — Minorleaguebaseball.com says an umpire can expect to spend seven years in the minor leagues before receiving a major-league assignment.
”I don’t get tired of it,” said Klein, who started out as a Little League umpire in his hometown of Carlisle, Ill. ”Sometimes it gets frustrating, but you have to go out and do your job and hope everything works out.”
All prospective umpires must attend one of two umpiring schools — the Jim Evans Academy, held in Kissimmee, Fla., and the Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires, held in Ormond Beach Fla. The top students from the schools are invited to a tryout held by the Professional Baseball Umpiring Corporation, which oversees minor league umps. Those who rank highest in the evaluation will be offered jobs umpiring in rookie leagues or short-season Class-A leagues. From there, their trek to the majors begins.
Burke had never even umpired a game before his evaluation, instead watching his uncle, who was a minor-league umpire and later an umpire supervisor. On the surface, that may seem like a fatal disadvantage. Instead, it had its benefits.
”Since I’d never umped before … there were no bad habits I had to break, and everything they taught me was gospel,” Burke explained. ”But it was five of the most intense weeks you could imagine.”
Along the way, the umpires gain experience, but must also adjust themselves. Burke said he saw a huge difference in the pace and the intensity of the game when he moved from the rookie-level Appalachian League to the short-season Class-A South Atlantic League.
”The speed of the game [was different], their arms, how hard they hit the ball,” he said. ”It was a more enhanced game.”
And while he said he didn’t see that much of a change from the Sally to the Carolina League, he probably will if he advances through AA, AAA and the majors.
Getting to the majors will also mean a bit of a lifestyle change too. Now, the CL’s two-man crews travel together, driving from ballpark to ballpark. In the majors, they’ll fly from city to city in four-man crews, which means a full three games’ rest from the grueling work of calling balls and strikes.
The Carolina League currently has 14 alumni among major league umpires, including Derryl Cousins, Angel Hernandez, Phil Cuzzi and crew chiefs Jerry Crawford and Joe West.
Like the players, the dream of one day calling a game in a 40,000-seat stadium is what drives them — despite all those days on the road in places they likely aren’t familiar with for a job that’s as thankless as it gets.
”It may sound hokey, but in the fall of ’99, when Payne Stewart died,” said Chris Conroy of his decision to become a professional ump. ”Here’s a guy who had come back from personal and professional problems, he won the U.S. Open. I got to thinking, tomorrow’s not guaranteed for any of us. I’m 25, I’m single, why not give it a shot?”
There’s no instant gratification for minor league umpires. A job, well done over the course of a season, ensures they’ll probably have a job waiting for them next summer, too. Maybe they’ll get a promotion; maybe not. Maybe they’ll make the bigs someday too.
Unlike some of the players, there’s little chance that’ll be next year.